Thursday, November 23, 2017

Fitchburg Breaks Through Against Leominster on Thanksgiving

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

Fitchburg, Mass. - As the brisk, chilly morning descended into its waning hours, two teams with enough history between them to fill 100 playbooks were making one final, desperate attempt to salvage lost seasons.

It is often said that whatever Leominster or Fitchburg does prior to Thanksgiving is insignificant when these two teams meet annually in late November. That theory holds true, especially in these parts, where this game has become folklore.

A victory over the other is enough to make even the worst of seasons more bearable. In the case of this year's contest, the road to the postseason for both the Blue Devils and Red Raiders ended weeks ago. The last salvageable grace remaining for both came down to Thursday's 136th meeting, between these old rivals, the 111th on Thanksgiving Day.

In one of the nation's longest and most-storied rivalries, Fitchburg grabbed a two touchdown lead in the fourth quarter and made it stand, coming away victorious, 34-21, at historic Crocker Field. It marked the first time since 2008 that the Red Raiders (6-5) have defeated their border adversary on Thanksgiving, though Fitchburg did defeat Leominster in the Central Mass playoffs in 2014.

Leominster now holds a slim 66-60-10 all-time lead in the series which began in 1894.

Coming in having won three straight, after losing its first seven games, Leominster (3-8) had zero answers for Fitchburg’s prolific running back Sal Figueroa. Fitting on this holiday, the senior carved through the Blue Devils defense with relative ease all morning long. Figueroa rushed for 307 yards on 27 carries, finding the end zone four times to close out his high school career. Figueroa was workman-like this entire season, running for 1,959 yards and 21 TDs.

“I’m just very happy for our team to come out here and get a win after all the work we have put in this whole season,” said Figueroa. “I feel like we restored some pride back to the city of Fitchburg today. This is always the main game for us during our season. Leominster had been winning it too long, so it feels amazing that we were finally able to beat them today.”

Trailing 7-6 at the half, the Red Raiders would get the ball first to start the third quarter. However, kick returner Isaiah Perez had the ball knocked out of his hands, and it was recovered by Leominster’s JC Cora, Jr. on the Fitchburg 8-yard line.

Needing just two plays, Leominster quarterback Pat Gallagher connected with Connor Marchand on a 6-yard corner route to extend the Blue Devils lead to 14-6. The Red Raiders lined up for another kick return, only this time, with Figueroa settling back deep. Figueroa took the kickoff and returned it 43 yards to set up his own 42-yard sweep down the left sideline to make it 14-13 with 9:26 remaining in the quarter.

“I couldn’t have done any of this today without my offensive line, Figueroa said. “I never would have been able to run as successfully as I did without them. But this was a total team effort today to get this victory.”

Figueroa's score seemed to light a spark beneath the Red Raiders from that point forward. After forcing the Blue Devils to punt on their next possession, Fitchburg began its next drive from its own 20. The Red Raiders mounted an impressive drive that was keyed by a 24-yard pitch and catch from quarterback Andrew Brooks to Devin Deleon. Reaching the Leominster 37, Figueroa got the call again as he darted past several defenders all the way to the end zone to put the Red Raiders in front 21-14 with 5:30 still left in the quarter.

“Fitchburg played well,” said Leominster head coach Dave Palazzi. “Figueroa was just too much for us today. Hats off to Fitchburg. They should be proud of this win. For us, we have a lot of young kids who will be back next year. They learned a lot from this year and today, we had a good fight all the way to the end, but they came out on top. Now we have another year to try and figure some things out.”

Leominster’s offense could never quite seem to get kick-started during the closing half. The Blue Devils finished with 254 yards but only 119 coming in the final 22 minutes. Of their final six possessions during the latter half, they were forced to punt three times. On the other side, Fitchburg amassed 383 yards, including 270 during the second half.

“We have such great kids here and that is what it is all about,” Red Raiders first-year head coach Tom DiGeronimo said. “They played hard all season. We easily could have folded at times. Today, the kids hung in there and did what they had to do.”

Clinging to its seven-point advantage, Fitchburg was able to go on top by two scores with 5:35 left in the fourth quarter after Damien Nadal hauled in a Brooks’ 8-yard pass for a 28-14 lead. Brooks, a junior, completed 4 of 7 attempts for 38 yards. But the Blue Devils would return the favor moments later. Cora Jr. ran back the ensuing kickoff 58 yards to the Red Raider 2. Junior running back Adam Couch then busted across the goal line to cut the deficit back to seven points. Couch, the Blue Devils’ top running threat was primarily held in check all throughout, finishing with 58 yards on 15 carries.

Showing no signs of panic, Fitchburg regrouped and proceeded to march 82 yards on its next series. Setting up shop on the Leominster 10 yard line, Figueroa blasted up the middle to put the Red Raiders in control, leading by 13 with 1:54 to go.

“Sal is really special,” DiGeronimo said. “We always say big time players make big time plays and he did that. He has made a lot of them for us. Our offensive line did a great job in front of him today. In fact, everyone did a great job today. We are a team that needs to do it all in order to make it all work.”

To the Blue Devils credit, they refused to let up. Quickly and methodically, Gallagher (16 of 32 passing for 177 yards, 2 TDs) drove his club 65 yards before the junior was picked off at the goal line by Perez to close things out.

Fitchburg began the day by firing the first salvo. On its opening possession, Figueroa sprinted 48 yards for a 6-0 lead after the PAT attempt failed. But Leominster quickly responded on its next possession. After a long return by Couch, the Blue Devils needed to drive just 37 yards before Gallagher found Mike Viola for a 9-yard scoring grab to go on top 7-6.

With just a handful of seconds remaining before halftime, Leominster had an opportunity to add to its lead. Marching 71 yards, the Blue Devils faced a fourth-and-7 on the Red Raiders’ 16. Instead of lining up for a field goal attempt, Couch took the handoff but fell short of securing a first down by a yard resulting in a turnover on downs.

“Our goal was we wanted to get better and play our best football at the end of the year,” said DiGeronimo, whose club won four of its final five contests. “After practice on Wednesday, I felt things were really headed in the right direction for us for today's game. We kept a mentality that we were just going to go out and play and slug it out. Today we made some plays and all of our coaches did an awesome job as did all of our kids.”

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